BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
The New York Yankees come to town to play a three game set with the A’s Tuesday night, bringing with them the best record in baseball and a stranglehold on the AL East division. The A’s continue to battle for a Wild Card berth, one game behind Tampa Bay, and if they were able to win that one game elimination match, they’d likely match up against the Yankees in the ALDS. Given the injuries that have plagued the Bronx Bombers in 2019, it is astounding that they hold such a lofty place in the standings.
The Yankees have been historically unfortunate with regard to their injuries in 2019. Starting third baseman Miguel Andujar only got 47 at bats before going down with a shoulder injury, and is out for the year. Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury has not played since 2017. Starting shortstop Didi Gregorius missed the first 70 games of the season recovering from elbow surgery. Leftfielder Giancarlo Stanton has missed all but nine contests thus far.
The starting outfield of CF Aaron Hicks (59 games), RF Aaron Judge (65 games) and LF Stanton (9 games) has played in a combined 133 games of a possible 363 this year. Hicks and Stanton are currently on the IL, and are not certain to return before the end of the season. Players such as first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion and first baseman Luke Voit are both currently out of action and might not be activated before the playoffs begin.
Starting catcher Gary Sanchez has missed 35 games with two different injuries. Their ace, Luis Severino hasn’t thrown a single pitch in 2019. Each of their projected 2019 rotation members: CC Sabathia, James Paxton, J.A. Happ, Masahiro Tanaka, and Severino have missed starts and/or been on the IL. Key setup man Dellin Betances has also been out all year. In all, through August 16th, the Yankees have lost 1930 player days to the IL this year, which represents a total of $62 million in payroll that has been unavailable to them (data courtesy of Spotrac). Both of those figures are the highest in the league this year by a significant margin.
The Yankees have the best record in baseball at 83-43, and are running away with the AL East. With all the injury issues they’ve had this year, how can that be possible ? The answer lies with the largely unknown players who have stepped up to help replace the injured Yankee stars, almost all of whom have performed at levels far exceeding their career norms.
Marcus Thames is the New York hitting coach, and he’s been on the job since the start of the 2018 season. His primary mantra for his hitters: “Make sure you swing at strikes.” Phil Plantier is the hitting coach for the Yankees AAA affiliate Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders. In a radio interview with Sweeny Murti on WFAN New York, Plantier notes that “making subtle tweaks in their work” was instrumental in helping his charges at AAA ascend to the majors with an approach that would be effective immediately.
As one might expect, neither Thames nor Plantier has been particularly specific about the nature of the adjustments their pupils have adopted, but it is very clear that whatever they’ve advised, it has paid dramatic dividends. Both men deserve credit for working with players who have arrived from other teams over the past two seasons, helping to elevate their offensive output and arguably fueling the Yankees success despite their unprecedented injury woes.
Third baseman Gio Urshela, 27, was a glove first prospect who never found his footing as a hitter in the majors with both Cleveland and Toronto. At AAA in 2017, he hit .266/.321/.374 for the Indians with six HR and 34 RBIs. He was traded the following May to Toronto for a player to be named, and was then purchased from the Jays by the Yankees in August of that year. In his major league career with Cleveland and Toronto, in 466 AB’s, he hit .225/.267/.315 with eight HR and 39 RBIs.
Since becoming a Yankee, Urshela has been a different hitter: .342/.383/.587 with 18 HR and 66 RBIs in 339 at bats. His batting average would lead all of baseball if he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the title, and is the best in the majors among hitters with at least 300 AB’s. He has improved in every facet of his game, and has arguably been more productive for the Yankees than Andujar, the man he’s replacing, who hit .297/.328/.527 in 2018. Urshela credits Plantier for helping him hone his swing when the Yankees acquired him in 2018, focusing on trying to utilize his legs to help generate power. It’s certainly working for him.
With slugging outfielders Judge and Stanton missing large portions of the season, the Yankees figured to be hard pressed to replace their productivity. But Mike Tauchman, who was acquired in March from Colorado for a minor league pitcher, has filled in capably. Despite a minor league track record that showed promise, Tauchman hadn’t been able to stick in the majors, hitting just .153/.265/.203 in 69 AB’s for the Rockies through his age 27 season. Surely, a player who couldn’t flourish in the thin air of Coors Field wouldn’t improve after leaving that environment. Yet that is exactly what happened. At 28, he’s hit .289/.372/.554 with 12 HRs and 42 RBIs for the Yankees, a batting rate that is better than that of Stanton’s 2018 season (.266/.343./.509). Plantier has also been instrumental in helping Tauchman develop his swing at the AAA level, helping to fuel his 2019 breakout in the Bronx.
Cameron Maybin, 32, arrived in New York in April of 2019. The team purchased his contract from the Indians, who had signed him less than a month earlier after the Giants released him, hoping he might be a solution to their outfield productivity woes. He never played a regular season game for either Cleveland or San Francisco, but he’s been a revelation for the Yankees. He’s hitting .312/.390/.526 in his 173 ABs for New York, levels that are dramatically better than his .257/.325/.376 career marks.
Perhaps the most remarkable transformation has occurred with infielder D.J. LeMahieu, 31, who has played at least 20 games at first, second and third base for the Yankees, covering for injured players all over the diamond in 2019. He was signed as a free agent following the 2018 season, after fashioning a strong presence in the NL as a Gold Glove second baseman for the Rockies. In his NL career, spent almost entirely with Colorado, he hit a respectable .298/.350/.406 with a total of 49 HRs over eight seasons.
LeMahieu’s NL batting levels were inflated by his play at Coors Field, where he had an 834 OPS compared to a 681 OPS in road stadiums, and many teams were hesitant to pursue him as a free agent, fearing his projected output would suffer outside of Coors Field. The Yankees were not concerned, signing him to a two-year, $24 million deal in January of this year. In addition to his trademark defensive prowess, he’s proved a prescient acquisition for New York. He is hitting .339/.386/.543,leading the AL batting race. His 21 homers and 86 RBIs are already career bests, and the season still has seven weeks remaining. Like many of his teammates in the Bronx, LeMahieu is producing at levels that are far better than his prior established norms.
SO, what is happening to turn these players into monsters in the Bronx ?
One of the possible explanations for the changes demonstrated by the Yankee hitters this year comes from a hire they made in January of this year. Linsdey Adler of The Athletic interviewed Dillon Lawson, the minor league hitting coordinator for the team, who has been implementing his theories on pitch recognition throughout the organization. Adler reveals that Lawson and his colleague, Dr. Peter Fadde, a professor at Southern Illinois University, have developed a program that helps hitters hone their reactions to pitches.
The goal is to identify pitches that a hitter should swing at, and those they should let pass, as early as possible in the ball’s flight towards the plate. One drill reportedly utilized by Lawson has hitters watching video of pitches being thrown. The video feed is halted before the pitch reaches the plate, and the hitters are responsible for identifying the type of pitch they just saw. The intent is to develop visible cues that hitters can recognize in the way a pitcher changes his arm, wrist or hand position to deliver that particular pitch, allowing them to build a mental inventory of pitches that they can store for future plate appearances. Could these types of drills help explain some of the marked improvements in their hitters in the major leagues?
Regardless of how the Yankees are getting their hitters to maximize their talents, the results are startling. Credit should rightfully go to the players themselves, who are putting bat to ball with admirable discipline, unleashing beautifully violent swings with career best outcomes. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that random chance or luck has been the primary driver of the stunning improvement shown by the Yankee players filling in for the team’s panoply of injured stars. People like Marcus Thames, Phil Plantier and Dillon Lawson all deserve to be recognized for helping to bring an organization-wide hitting philosophy to the franchise, and for having the skill to translate those paradigms into practical drills and mechanical adjustments that have been the engine behind the success of the Yankee hitters who have stepped up when the opportunity arose.